Like its predecessor, the year 2022 has been strange, momentous, and unsettling, marked by continuing economic catastrophes, recurrent political upheavals, and a war in Europe which shows no signs of abating. In the midst of so much instability, books, articles, films and podcasts have once again been a resource and a refuge. As the new year approaches, History Workshop editors choose their radical ‘reads’ of the year.
I re-read George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) set in the time of the old Poor Law. Hetty’s dishonour, magnified by her pride which ‘belongs to the class that pays the most poor rates and shudders at the idea of profiting by a poor rate’ destroys her, though not before Eliot has wrung hearts and minds of her readers. ‘Loss of character’ – Hetty’s fate – is explored through the lives of real women one hundred years later n Julia Laite’s engrossing study of transnational trafficking and migration The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey (2021). ‘Our mental business is carried on in much the same way as the business of the state’ Eliot reflects through the mind of Arthur, Hetty’s seducer; by way of hidden machinations and self-deceptions. I read everything by Will Davies on Britain’s politics and economy in the London Review of Books and recently Eric Foner’s fine essay on the American historian C Vann Woodward
This year the wonderful Australian novelist Frank Moorhouse died. I am late to his Edith Trilogy but glad I have finally arrived in Geneva of the 1920s. These three books follow administrative assistant Edith Campbell Berry around the halls of the League of Nations. Edith is a unique heroine, enthusiastic about bureaucracy and internationalism, fun, easily led, sometimes strange and always herself. Recently, I gave in my doctoral dissertation and by the end I could read nothing but cookbooks to wind down in the evening. I particularly enjoyed Meera Sodha’s East. This, like the very best radical books, allowed me to imagine a different future beyond the present and to take steps toward it, little by little and meal by meal.
This year I read three fantastic books well beyond my own field that changed my thinking, radically: The Guitar: Tracing the Grain Back to the Tree by Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren, The Astronomer’s Chair: A Visual and Cultural History by Omar Nasim and The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison. What they all have in common is a focus on small things – guitars, chairs and obscure translators – connected to larger and urgent issues like environmental sustainability, the material culture of science and the politics of language. All are beautifully crafted books, both in their writing and in their production – curiously only now I now notice that all three come out of US Academic Presses (Chicago, MIT and Princeton respectively). Of the three. The Guitar is the only one not written by historians, but it is possibly the most radical: it’s a wide-ranging study of the making of guitars, drawing on a multi-site ethnography of labour in saw-mills, factories and workshops, paying particular attention to lived experience of makers and the material properties of wood as well as global histories of colonialism, extractivism and mass production.
Jennifer Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic puts the social history of enslaved African women right at the heart of racial capitalism. Her ‘reckoning’ shows how enslaved women were counted as goods, their reproductive capacity and the erasure of kinship enlisted into political arithmetic. It figures women, too, as reckoning themselves, seeing themselves as embodying exchange, posing critical questions about seeing agency in the slavery archive. It prompts so many more questions too, for historians of women and the early modern: about whiteness, kinship, maternity, women’s investing, and resistance.
I’ve spent the year working on a cultural history of Valerie Solanas’s 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol, and for that reasons all my choices for 2022 focus on the politics of art. Laura Poitras’s gripping and enraging documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed profiles the photographer Nan Goldin and her campaign to eradicate the name and the money of the Sackler family from museums and galleries worldwide. Goldin, who’d gotten clean after years of heroin use, in 2017 barely survived an addiction to OxyContin, the pain medication manufactured and heavily promoted by the Sacklers’ company Purdue Pharma. The film chronicles her ferocious and inspiring efforts to hold the Sacklers accountable, interspersed with her intensely painful family history (the loss of a beloved sister to suicide), her immersion in queer nightlife, and her discovery of photography as a means of documenting uncomfortable truths.
The sexual politics of the art world – one of the subtexts of Poitras‘s documentary – is the direct focus of Death of an Artist, a podcast written and presented by the art historian Helen Molesworth. Its subject is the 1985 death of the Cuban-American feminist artist Ana Mendieta, who fell, or jumped, or was pushed, out of the 34th floor window of the Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband, the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. The series explores the bungled investigation that followed, Andre’s highly problematic acquittal, and the process by which much of the art world closed ranks around him in the face of attacks by what one male artist described as a “feminist cabal”. Like the Goldin film, it raises uncomfortable questions about abuse and accountability, and about how money, power, and misogyny reverberate within the hallowed regions of “art.” Finally, though it’s nearly a decade old, I’ve spent much of the year thinking about the critic Hilton Als’ essay “The Women,” part of his 2013 collection White Girls. An incisive examination of the work of Truman Capote and his self-consciously feminine early authorial persona, it places a compelling and original spotlight on the sexual dynamics of 20th century artistic cultures and the upheavals over gender, sex, and creative authority that the women’s liberation movement would ultimately help to unleash.
Radical in both style and subject matter, Preti Taneja’s book Aftermath explores the aftermath of the London terror attack at Fishmonger’s Hall to track questions of race, violence and the commitment to reading and writing in the face of grief. I also liked very much indeed Tiya Miles’ book All That She Carried as a radical act of historical methodology and imagination about a family of enslaved women in Charleston. It came out in 2021 and has picked up a lot of major prizes in North America but doesn’t seem to have had as much traction in the UK.
This year I decided to join a book club (much love to the Feminist Book Club Glasgow) as I wanted to meet like-minded people who enjoy reading interesting, thought-provoking books written by, for and about women. This group has offered me solace, friendship and intellectual stimulation during a trying year. My favourite book was Susan Abulhawa’s Against The Loveless World – an emotional, hard-hitting novel that follows a young Palestinian refugee called Nahr as she navigates decades of war, displacement, violence, and oppression in the Middle East. In telling Nahr’s complex life story – replete with love, death, joy and pain – Abulhawa captures the essence of the suffering of Palestinians in their multiple exoduses, particularly the pain and oppression inflicted on women and other marginalised people in occupied territories. Nonetheless, when Nahr dances, we dance with her – refusing to be crushed in this loveless world.
I’m halfway through reading Maggie Nelson’s latest offering, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. I have to admit that, at first glance, I was turned off by the word ‘freedom’, so evocative of liberal philosophers and the American right. As a result, the book sat on my shelf, unread, for over a year. In reading the first two of the ‘four songs’, on art and sex, I found myself traversing a space in which Nelson insists on the importance of indeterminacy, ambivalence, contradiction. A collapsed, one-dimensional version of her argument about freedom could be read as a challenge to ‘cancel culture’ within public discussions of art and ‘consent culture’ within public discussions of sex. This is something I find instinctively uncomfortable, given the asymmetrical power dynamics that underwrite whose artistic freedoms and whose sexual freedoms predominate within public life. And yet, Nelson is saying something interesting, and knotty, about power – about the fact it cannot, will not, simply be abolished, but exists everywhere and must be looked at, worked with, reconstituted, continuously.
She returns again and again to Foucault’s formulation: ‘Liberation paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom’. She is also saying something important about care: it is not only the act of protecting, giving, and fixing (qualities that oftentimes bleed into coercion), it is also about ‘assuming strength in the other, resisting the temptation to provide all the answers… making space for pain, individuation, and conflict without falling apart, or without losing an underlying conviction of fellowship and love’. These aspirations can feel utopian in a world fraying under the strain of the abuse of power, a lack of accountability, the alienation of social media, and our own complicity in many forms of exploitation. Nelson provides no road map. But her book serves as an invective against ‘after the revolution’ thinking by asking us to consider how we might practice of freedom, relationally, in the here and now.
Claude McKay was a wondrous figure, formed in the crucible of the emergent, and embattled, black Americas of the twentieth century. He lived many lives, as poet, political radical and castaway, in each new incarnation exhibiting his irrepressible mental energy. He was so mercurial that no-one quite knows where to place him, or decide how his legacy should be remembered. A free-thinking Jamaican of the late Victorian world? A leading personality in the Harlem Renaissance? A high-proof Bolshevik, mixing with the leading figures of the Revolution in Russia or, further afield, with the spirited Communism of Sylvia Pankhurst? A low-life anticipation of queer theory, wedded to the conviviality of the improvised lives of the Marseilles dockside?
In Winston James’s biography The Making of a Black Bolshevik, McKay properly joins the greats of black America, now accorded his due respect in this scrupulous and thoughtful study. It is a wonderful book, which draws the reader into McKay’s tempestuous world. At every point James’s interpretation is coolly judicious, bringing a lifetime’s thought to fruition. But the McKay who emerges never conforms to prevailing expectations. Just when you think you have him in focus, off he ricochets on his way to making himself someone new. After this biography, partly due to the depth of its scholarship, he paradoxically becomes more difficult to reach. It proves more difficult to determine who, finally, he was.
Winston James has excelled in presenting Claude McKay as an ever-troubling figure. Every move he took defied expectations. And so, thanks to James’s biography, he continues to defy all that we imagine we know about his life.
I’ve chosen a film – The Wonder, directed by Sebastián Lelio, and set in 1862. It tells the story of a little girl who appeared to be able to survive without eating – and the attempts by a committee of men to provide objective evidence that this was genuinely miraculous. I’ve chosen this not because it gives a historically accurate account of religious experience in late nineteenth-century Ireland (it is based on a fictional novel by Emma Donoghue) – but because I was struck by the ways it dramatizes the questions which face us as historians. I’ve become more and more interested in medieval religious experience recently, but there are so many challenges. The film articulated these in ways at once challenging and poetic. How do we bring supposedly rational historical methods to bear on the mystical or wondrous, without losing a sense of what is intrinsic to it? How can we acknowledge the contingency of mystical experience, whilst understanding that part of its appeal and meaning lies in the timeless? How can we respect the integrity of devotion, whilst analysing wider economic and political, often oppressive, circumstances? How do we address the dynamics of power at the heart of religious institutions, whilst being respectful of the subjective experiences of individuals? How do we understand the role of gender and sexuality? How do we take seriously the religious stories and experiences of the past, whilst acknowledging the mixed emotions they raise in us as observers?
As well as being a superb historian, Ram Guha is one of India’s most respected public intellectuals, combatting the slide into majoritarian nationalism. Rebels Against the Raj is a wonderfully researched and vividly written account of seven ‘western fighters for India’s Freedom’, and also a rebuke to ‘nativists and xenophobes’ as he tells the stories of ‘seven quite remarkable indivduals, all foreign-born, all white-skinned, who identified so completely with Indian aspirations’. All seven of Guha’s subjects not simply supported India’s national cause; all were either jailed, deported, interned or externed by the British Raj. All but one died on Indian soil. Four are men and three women; four are British, two American and one Irish. Four may be considered obvious candidates for inclusion (the nationalist and theosophist Annie Besant; Gandhi’s aide Madeleine Slade, who took the name of Mira Behn; the newspaper editor B.G. Horniman; and the communist apostle Philip Spratt) and three less so (Samuel, or Satyanand, Stokes; Dick Keithahn; and Catherine Heilemann, or Sarla Devi).
Their motives were variously political, religious, ethical, personal and environmental. Annie Besant is still commemorated in India, especially in Chennai where she died. There’s a gilded statue of her; she gave her name to the district of Besant Nagar; and the city’s best beach is still colloquially known as Bessie’s Beach. The other six are not so well remembered. But their individual stories recount how, swayed largely by their abhorrence of Empire, they went against the grain, often moved away from family and friends and embraced what was at first an unfamiliar country and culture.
My Radical Read of the year is Heather Ford’s, Writing the Revolution: Wikipedia and the Survival of Facts in the Digital Age. It’s a study of how activists worked to define the 2011 Egyptian Revolution on Wikipedia, using the world’s encyclopaedia to try to shape global public discourse. A fascinating read for those interested in how the digital world interacts with real-world politics.